Every time there’s a hullabaloo over what Balasaheb Thackeray or his feisty (and politically estranged) nephew Raj Thackeray has said or, to be more precise, alleged to have said, I cannot help but wonder what media would have done on a dull day had the Thackeray clan not existed. The kerfuffle over what media claims Raj Thackeray has said about Biharis during a closed-door meeting with MNS members is a case in point.
I wouldn’t dare claim that I can understand Marathi or that I can read the language. Those who can (and are not necessarily fans of Raj Thackeray, his uncle or his mild-mannered cousin) have watched the video recording of Raj Thackeray’s speech and confirmed the following points:
There is sufficient evidence to suggest that both Shiv Sena and MNS, as well as Balasaheb Thackeray and Raj Thackeray, don’t feel too kindly towards Biharis (and ‘Bhaiyyas’ from Uttar Pradesh) who flock to Mumbai looking for jobs. The Thackeray clan insists it’s not about a blind dislike of outsiders, but certain immigrants abusing Mumbai’s (and Mumbaikars’) hospitality.
Those who do not agree with that assertion accuse the Thackerays (and the Senas they lead) of practising xenophobia and being intolerant of ‘others’ or ‘outsiders’.
The issue is much more complex and layered than is made out to be. The truth, as the BBC’s black-and-white era advertisement had it, comes in shades of grey. So also with the Senas versus Biharis story – contrived reasons to explain the stressful relationship between the two are both simplistic and misleading.
If we were to look for who cast the first stone, it would be the Shiv Sena. It is the original sinner: “Maharashtra for Maharashtrians” is not only a slogan for the Thackeray sainiks, but also the raison d’être of the deeply parochial organisation Balasaheb Thackeray founded in 1966 to combat “Marathi marginalisation”. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena is an offshoot of the Shiv Sena; it remains committed to the objectives of the parent organisation.
The Shiv Sena was born six years after Maharashtra’s formation following an often violent agitation by Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti, culminating in the infamous police firing on agitators at Mumbai’s Flora Fountain in which 105 people were killed, forcing a cussed Morarji Desai to climb down from his high horse. Strangely though, Balasaheb Thackeray did not unleash the city’s lumpen proletariat on Gujarati traders and businessmen, who stayed put after Bombay State was carved into Maharashtra and Gujarat, but immigrant Tamilians and their Udupi eateries.
Decades later, it is the turn of ‘North Indians’.
Much has been said and written to denounce the real and verbal violence against Hindi-speaking ‘outsiders’; the Thackerays deserve much of the castigation that has come their way. But in our haste to criticise their politics of nativism, let us not forget that parochialism is the other name for regionalism. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that ‘State politics’ across India, as opposed to ‘national politics’, is largely based on pandering to parochial pride and provincial sentiments camouflaged as regional aspirations.
In Tamil Nadu, the idea of a ‘Dravida Desam’ where Brahmins — described as “agents of North India” in DMK pamphlets — shall have no place, continues to titillate popular imagination. In Andhra Pradesh, NT Rama Rao made ‘Telugu Desam’ the platform of his politics; his political heir, Chandrababu Naidu, who now heads the Telugu Desam Party, continues to build on it.
Shibu Soren who floated and led the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha would often assert at public rallies demanding a separate tribal State that dikus were not welcome in his land. Even after a separate State was formed, he remained adamant that Jharkhand must remain the “sole preserve” of adivasis and moolvasis. Jharkhand, Soren’s political legatees will tell you, was created for the “rights of tribals and not non-tribals, for the actual sons-of-the-soil”.
The Left-liberal commentariat will, of course, disingenuously suggest that there is merit in pursuing a ‘tribals first’ policy in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh; after all, they are the original inhabitants and have been marginalised in their own land. But shorn of crude rhetoric, this is precisely what is being claimed in Maharashtra – ‘sons-of-the-soil’ have the first right to jobs, housing and amenities.
A similar sentiment is cited to justify violence against non-Assamese in Assam where migrant labourers and traders from Bihar have been targeted by ‘sons-of-the-soil’ seeking to assert their rights in their State. Many would still recall the anti-foreigners agitation that was triggered by the discovery of voters in Mongoldoi having multiplied several times over, thanks to illegal immigration from Bangladesh, when a by-election was necessitated following the death of Hiralal Patwa on March 28, 1979.
Till the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, the All-Assam Students’ Union, which organised the ‘Bangaal kheda’ agitation, held the State, and the country, to ransom. It is another matter that despite being in power twice, the AGP has failed miserably in tracking down and deporting Bangladeshis; the IMDT Act of 1983 (which has since been struck down by the Supreme Court) was not alone to blame for this failure.
But few would recall that the seeds of the anti-foreigners agitation were sown during an earlier virulently parochial agitation against ‘outsiders’ disparagingly referred to as “Ali-Kuli-Bangaali”. Very few Bengalis now remain in Assam, most having migrated back to West Bengal, while kulis — tribals from what was once known as Chhota Nagpur — employed in tea gardens continue to face the wrath of the ‘sons-of-the-soil’, some of whom infamously stripped and chased a young tribal girl in the streets of Guwahati as others gawked.
It would also be in order to point out how Kashmiris shut their doors on ‘other’ Indians (although, and rightly so, ‘other’ Indians open their doors to all Kashmiris. Provincialism and parochialism acquire a sinister edge when Hindu Kashmiris are treated as ‘others’ by the Muslims of Kashmir Valley. There’s nothing edifying about that terrible exclusion.
It would, however, be incorrect to believe that the perceived rights of ‘sons- of-the-soil’ over those of ‘outsiders’ followed the creation of linguistic States. TN Joseph and SN Sangita, in their research paper, “Preferential Politics and Sons-of-the-Soil Demands: The Indian Experience”, have pointed out how the ‘sons-of-the-soil’ demands were advocated by leaders of the nationalist movement. “For instance, a report prepared by Rajendra Prasad for the Working Committee of the Indian National Congress presents an extensive survey of the Bihar situation as of 1938. This report, endorsed by the Indian National Congress, uses the term ‘provincials’ to refer to the sons-of-the-soil and declares that their ‘desire to seek employment in their own locality is natural and not reprehensible, and rules providing for such employment to them are not inconsistent with the high ideals of the Congress’. Rajendra Prasad argued in the report that it is ‘just and proper that the residents of a province should get preference in their own province in the matter of public services and educational facilities… It is neither possible nor wise to ignore these demands, and it must be recognised that in regard to services and like matters the people of a province have a certain claim which cannot be overlooked’.”
Between 1938 and 2012, India has travelled a long distance and the national economy is now vastly different from what it was even a decade ago. But provincialism — or call it what you may — remains as deeply ingrained as ever. ‘Cosmopolitan India’ is a figment of the commentariat’s imagination.